Countdown to college

What to buy? What to wear? There are a million things to think about when you're preparing for your first term at university. Ken Welsby offers students and parents some practical advice

With only weeks to go before the start of term, it's time for both parents and children to consider some of the practical aspects of student life on a budget.

The first and most obvious point is that the more you and other members of the family can provide, the less your student son or daughter will need to pay for themselves.

The other thing to bear in mind is that the first couple of weeks of the year are by far the most expensive, so they will need some ready cash.

If you are eligible for a grant, the cheque may not arrive until the start of term - and, once a bank account has been opened, will, of course, take two or three days to clear.

So you need to send them off with some sort of cash reserve to tide them over those first few days. If they already have a savings account with a cash dispenser card, then it will be safer to put the money in there than handing over a wad of notes. Start with what you can provide.

If they are going into self-catering accommodation, some of your older pots, pans, crockery and cutlery will come in useful - but make sure the pans are non-stick since "students" and "washing up" do not mix happily.

Students do not need much in the way of expensive clothing: tell them firmly that the days of hitting on you for designer tops or trainers at pounds 50-plus are over. Jeans and chinos, tees and sweatshirts are the order of the day - and do make sure they have some comfortable and durable footwear, because they will spend a lot of time on their feet - moving around campus and, as you can remind them, walking to save money on local bus fares.

One point to remember: if they are on sandwich courses, have work placements or sponsorship - any kind of arrangement which involves contact with the commercial world, they may need more formal wear - a blouse and skirt or jacket and tie. But these are probably not worth buying in advance.

"Employers don't expect pinstripes," says Liverpool careers adviser Michael Blake, "but if you are trying to make a good impression on a prospective employer, you should be clean and tidily dressed and at least show that you are making an effort to fit in."

Despite the protestations of university and college authorities to the contrary, halls of residence and student flats are often notoriously insecure, so go through a checklist on the following lines.

Make sure that you or they take out insurance for their personal possessions - ask your householder insurer first, or contact Endsleigh, which specialises in student cover. Discuss simple security precautions - such as keeping doors locked, not leaving other students alone in rooms and not carrying too much cash.

Valuables such as a stereo or computer should be marked with name and home telephone number in indelible ink. Make sure the marking is visible - it will deter the casual thief.

If your son or daughter is the first in the family to go into higher education, grandparents and others often want to reward their achievement with a gift.

What to give? Depending on the institution, a bicycle may well save time and money - particularly if living accommodation and lectures are not close to each other. Lots of parents go out and buy computers - but it's worth checking first if the university or college can offer special purchasing deals, and, more important, whether there are any special software requirements.

For those with more modest ideas, a number of smaller items will never go amiss: phonecards, so that they can always keep in touch; Railcards, so that they can get cheap fares (and come and visit you), and, of course, book tokens, which they can use to cut the cost of their reading listn

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